Politics & Policy

The Testosterone Test

Boy Edwards vs. Manly Cheney.

In July, John Edwards, People’s sexiest politician, was expected to be the Pied Piper who lured women on board the Kerry Express.

#ad#But as Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate approaches, that theory is in shambles. Among men, Bush leads Kerry by the same margin he outpolled Gore, but among women Bush has a narrow lead instead of the double-digit deficit he had when he ran in 2000. The discrepancy makes sense if one focuses on women’s worst fears.

Women want to feel that their families are safe. They hate risk. Men are three times more likely than women to drown, four times more likely to suffer a serious spinal-cord injury and five times more likely to be killed by lightning. In one Harvard study, men and women were asked to evaluate 25 health risks, and the women ranked all 25 as riskier than did the men.

In a typical year, risk aversion makes women focus on domestic policy: They want assured access to good health care and a safety net with no holes.

But this year we have terrorism to worry about, and the most frightening risks are more elemental. Among men, only those in big cities say they worry about being a victim of terrorism. But women everywhere say they worry. Married women with children have leaned Republican for years, but this year the moms are even more solidly Republican. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the New York Times that the “the images from Russia were particularly vivid to moms,” who were unnerved to see children killed in a remote town.

In the public eye, Bush swamps Kerry as the man most able to deal with the terrorist threat. Kerry is tall and a combat veteran. But in this campaign he has not seemed manly.

In early September Kerry went to Green Bay, Wis., and botched an attempt to identify the Packers’ home field. He was pictured cringing at an approaching football in one picture and falling with one in his arms in another. Later, at the opening of a Red Sox game, he bounced a weak ceremonial “first pitch” in the direction of the catcher. And, courtesy of the Bush team, we’ve all seen Kerry the Sportsman in his preppy knee-length swimsuit, showing off his wind-surfing skills.

Kerry promises a more “sensitive” war on terror–not the adjective a fighter should reach for–and there is no way that his wandering back and forth in search of an Iraq policy can seem anything but hapless. His wife’s riches and her inability to say much about Sen. Kerry when she talks–or even pay much attention when he does–gives everyone the sense that this man who wants to head the country is not even the head of his family.

Edwards makes all these problems worse. There are different kinds of good-looking men–say Leonardo DiCaprio at one pole and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the other. Some evidence suggests that voters like candidates for national office who appear as happy warriors–those who simultaneously seem upbeat and reassuring. In an election that hinges on terrorism, reassurance is especially important.

Edwards is a classic “I-feel-your-pain” Democrat. But women already grant Democrats the “I-feel-your-pain” issue. This year, they want to know whether the Democrats are tough enough to keep their families safe.

Edwards looks boyish and sounds boyish. Vice President Cheney is no Schwarzenegger, but he reeks of gravitas and has a biography to back it up–secretary of defense, White House chief of staff, CEO of a major corporation. Moreover, he sounds authoritative. Cheney went over the top in suggesting that a Kerry presidency would mean more terrorism, but Edwards was not a compelling critic. Edwards’s indignation appeared weak in a boyish man speaking an octave higher than Cheney. A deep voice is an indicator of high testosterone and thus of manly strength.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Edwards will claim that if elected John Kerry and he will find and crush the terrorists. But for voters who want reassurance and manliness, he is unlikely to carry the day.

Steven E. Rhoads is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of the recently published Taking Sex Differences Seriously.

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